Sunday, February 13, 2011
Enjoy a beer with Jefferson's ghost
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From the RoundTable blog
One of my friends in college, Michael, was a telecommunications major, but he lived in our hallway full of history majors.
One weekend night, we were all drinking, as college students are wont to do, and we history majors got to talking about our Renaissance class. Suddenly, Michael burst into the room and declared, "I am a Renaissance man! I like beer and mixed drinks."
That, at least, he shared in common with Thomas Jefferson. That great Virginian had diverse passions that made him a Renaissance man in so many other ways, but I suspect he and Michael would have enjoyed sharing a few drinks.
Jefferson's dinner table featured several alcoholic beverages, many of them produced at Monticello. Hard cider, wine and beer were especially popular.
In this age of boutique Virginia vineyards, the stories of Jefferson's experiments with winemaking are fairly well known. He planted grapes, but never had much success with bringing them to fruit and then wine.
His brewing fared much better.
Beer was a staple beverage, brewed at Monticello twice per year, in the spring and fall, and served at most dinners.
It was a little different from beer today. It contained no barley. Instead, it had a wheat and corn base with some light hops. There was no precise recipe, though. Jefferson considered brewing more of an art.
That doesn't mean he didn't leave some hints.
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Starr Hill Brewery have resurrected Jefferson's brew. For most of the last decade, they scoured his writing and consulted his favorite brewing book.
"He was one of the original craft brewers of his day," said Mark Thompson, Starr Hill's master brewer.
Later this month, the foundation and brewery will unveil Monticello Reserve Ale, which Thompson says is "as authentic as we think that we can make it."
In other words, if you've ever wondered what sort of beer the Founding Fathers drank, you soon will be able to find out.
And if you've never wondered that, you should. There are precious few opportunities to experience the world as our forefathers did.
Best of all, it's tasty.
Thompson and Justin Sarafin, assistant curator at Monticello, opened a couple of bottles for the press last week.
It isn't a typical wheat beer. Instead, it's a bright lager with a touch of corn in the background. A slightly bitter aftertaste fades after the first few sips. I agree with Thompson that this is a beer Jefferson would have been proud to call his own. It's ideal for a hot Virginia afternoon or with a warm meal.
As you sip it, it's worth reflecting on who did the brewing 200 years ago. It was Jefferson's show, but he wasn't the real brewmaster. No, the story of beer at Monticello involves more than one Renaissance man.
Jefferson spent years toying with brewing, but he didn't get serious about it until 1813. In the fall of that year, he began collaborating with Joseph Miller, an Englishman stranded in Albemarle County by the War of 1812.
- Will you try Jefferson's brew? Post your thoughts at the RoundTable.
Miller knew how to make beer and he instructed one of Jefferson's slaves, Peter Hemings, brother of the famous Sally. Hemings showed great aptitude and soon was turning out a fine brew for Monticello that caught the attention of James Madison, Gov. James Barbour and other luminaries of the day.
There is just one problem: Starr Hill brews in Crozet, and the beer initially will be available only at Monticello and around Charlottesville. Thompson said that if things go well, the beer will be available throughout the commonwealth near the end of this year or in 2012.
For shame, Starr Hill. Other Starr Hill beers are available in Southwest Virginia. Jefferson belongs to all of Virginia and so should his beer.
In the meantime, Monticello invites the public to a free tasting of the Reserve Ale on President's Day, Feb. 21. If you can't make it then, choose another day to visit. Charlottesville is less than three hours away. Sure, it's 'Hoos country, but Monticello is neutral territory, and it isn't often one has an opportunity to sample a presidential beer.